Bible Study Guide: Revelation

What makes Revelation unique?

The word translated as "revelation" (1:1) comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, meaning a revealing or an unveiling. Revelation belongs to a kind of writing called apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic writings attempt to reveal the secrets of heaven to human beings, and are often about the way human history will end. Such writings usually divide the whole universe into two parts, one good and one evil. At the end of time, the good part of the universe, which God rules, will win a final victory over the evil part, which Satan has ruled. Having defeated evil, God will bring in a new creation, and everyone who has been faithful will live with God forever. Apocalyptic passages can be found in other books of the Bible such as Daniel 7-12 and Mark 13, but this is the only book of the Bible made up entirely of apocalyptic writing.

Revelation excites the imagination. It features brilliant visions of a coming Day of the Lord. These visions are expressed through many symbols, including people in the shape of animals or monstrous beasts, colors and numbers that have secret meanings, and predictions about when God will bring the world to an end.

The writer of the book knew the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) very well. Over half the verses in Revelation are directly or indirectly based on Old Testament passages. This is important for understanding the meaning of the book.

Why was Revelation written?

Around the end of the first century A.D., all people in the Roman Empire were ordered to offer prayers and sacrifices to the Roman emperors, who had declared themselves gods. This practice is referred to as the Imperial Cult. Those who refused were regarded as traitors to the Empire, and could be put to death. Christians wondered whether their disobedience would mean the end of the church. What would happen to the hope that God would rule on earth? The writer of Revelation received a special message from God that answered these questions. He shared it with seven churches in Asia, but the message is really for all Christians. This message has three main parts:

1. Evil forces are at work in the world, and Christians may have to suffer and die;

2. Jesus is Lord, and he will conquer all people and powers--including the Roman Empire--that oppose God; and

3. God has wonderful rewards for those who remain faithful to him, especially for those who lose their lives while serving him.

This was a powerful message of hope for those early Christians who had to suffer or die for their faith. In this book, they learned that, in spite of the cruel power of the Roman Empire, Jesus (the Lamb of God; 5:6) would win the final victory.

What's the story behind the scene?

The exact identity of John, the writer of this book, is still debated today. John was a common name among Jews and Christians, and he never claims to be one of Jesus' twelve key disciples. If we take Revelation 1:9 at face value, which most biblical scholars do, then the fact that the author had been exiled rather than put to death indicates that he may have been a person of some social standing, because exile was a punishment reserved for those who held a certain degree of status. Therefore, there would have been a great deal at stake for the author in taking the sort of world-rejecting action that he advocates throughout the book. He would have appreciated deeply the consequences of such a strong religious and political position.

The issue of authorship is inextricably tied to the more complex (and perhaps more relevant) issue of determining when the book was written. Domitian, who ruled the Roman Empire from A.D. 81 to 91, was the first Roman emperor who tried to make Christians worship the emperor as a god. The emperor Trajan later made a policy that also required everyone to worship the Roman emperors who had died. Since Revelation seems to speak to Christians who were being persecuted for not worshiping the emperor, many scholars think the book was likely written sometime late in Domitian's reign, or even later, when Trajan ruled. Other scholars, however, believe the book was written much earlier, just before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Revelation uses many numbers as symbols, such as the number seven, which stands for completeness or perfection. Other kinds of symbols are also used. For example, the main symbol for the powers opposed to God is the city "Babylon." Christian readers knew that this really meant Rome, and they also knew that when the book says "the Lamb," the writer means Jesus Christ.

How is Revelation constructed?

This complicated book was written in a series of sections that show the struggle of the church against the enemies of God. This struggle begins in the story of seven earthly churches and ends with a vision of God's great victory and the completely new heaven and earth that God will bring in the future. Revelation can be outlined in the following way:

  • John's prophecy and prayer (1:1-8)
  • Vision for the seven churches (1:9 - 3:12)
  • Vision of God and the Lamb (4:1 - 5:14)
  • Opening the seven seals (6:1 - 8:5)
  • The seven trumpets (8:6 - 11:19)
  • The opponents of God (12:1 - 13:18)
  • Visions of God's judgment and protection (14:1 - 16:21)
  • Victory over the enemies of God (17:1 - 20:15)
  • God makes all things new (21:1 - 22:5)
  • Final promises, blessings, and warnings (22:6-21)